PUTNEY—Sandglass Theater in Putney is the recipient of a $100,000 grant from New England Foundation for the Arts National Theater Project for its newest theater piece, Babylon: Journeys of Refugees.
One of only eight productions from the entire country to be selected, Babylon is a powerful and evocative work that tells the story of today’s refugees: their sense of home, their arduous journeys, and the challenges of resettlement.
Performed by puppets and actors with moving panoramas known as crankies, Babylon weaves together the stories of people recently resettled from Syria, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Burundi.
Babylon was conceived by Eric Bass and his wife Ines Zeller Bass, co-artistic directors of Sandglass Theater. The production was co-directed by Eric, along with a longstanding friend of Sandglass, Roberto Solomon, director and producer of El Salvadoran theater who, since 2003, has held the reins at the Luis Poma Theater, the first private theater in the country.
Ines first directed attention at Sandglass to the concerns of Babylon. She had strong responses to reading about the migration of large numbers of refugees in Northern Europe. Originally from Germany herself, Ines was particularly interested in watching how Europe was affected by it all.
Reality catches up
Yet if originally the work was focused on Europe, with the cultural shift in America, particularly in regards to rhetoric surrounding the election of President Trump, reality caught up with the project.
“After each presentation of Babylon, we found that something had happened that we needed to incorporate in the work,” Bass says. “Initially, Babylon may have been a project ahead of the times, but now the times on this issue move so quickly, we have to work avidly to keep Babylon current.”
Actually, Babylon isn’t yet a finished work. The theater piece has been publicly performed only during four residencies, when it was billed as a work in development.
“Through its different engagements, the piece has continued to develop, as we make changes in the work and hone the skills of the performers as well as the dramatic tension,” Bass says.“ Babylon is still in development, although it is fully presentable. It certainly has come a long way since it was last performed in Southern Vermont as part of Sandglass residency at Landmark College in Putney.”
Bass foresees the completion of the work after January 2019, but Babylon will have gone through two more residencies before then.
Everyone at Sandglass is thrilled to have been awarded a New England Foundation for the Arts National Theater Project grant for their timely and innovative production.
The mission of New England Foundation for the Arts is to cultivate and promote the arts in New England and beyond. Its National Theater Project promotes the development of artist-led, ensemble, and devised theater work while extending the reach and life of these projects through touring.
Since the first round of grants in 2010, NTP has worked to promote this kind of theater work while extending the reach and life of these projects through touring. Modeled on NEFA’s National Dance Project, NTP functions as a full system of support for devised theater, which in addition to funding, animates an informed, interactive network of producing theaters, presenters, and ensembles.
Eric Bass explains, “NTP gives out its grants specifically to ensemble theater, that is theater companies that develop their own work, rather than regional theater companies that put on already established pieces. In companies like Sandglass, performers, directors, and designers together create their theatrical work.”
Bass says that while locally the company may be acclaimed for working with puppets, nationally Sandglass is mainly known for ensemble theater.
Since the first round of NTP grants in 2010, New England Foundation for the Arts has infused over $6.31 million into the field through the program. To date, 57 new theater works have been supported through Creation and Touring grants; touring of those works has reached 43 different states across the U.S.
In the third round of grants from NTP, Sandglass already had won an award for D-Generation, its theater piece about dementia.
“This year is the first time that NTP has awarded grants to an organization that had already received one in the past,” Bass says. “Sandglass is one of only two companies that have been awarded a second grant from NTP.”
But then Sandglass’s Babylon is a very special work of theater.
As described on the Puppets in the Green Mountains website, in Babylon “seven puppets in need of asylum wash up on a metaphorical shore. The refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Burundi, one is a voiceless caterpillar and one is a ghost from a war past who is still on her journey ... [T]he blending of actual testimony with fictitious figures gives us a view into how we respond to the enormity of this crisis.”
Babylon is a response to the rapidly escalating world crisis of refugees and asylum seekers.
According to the Sandglass website, www.sandglasstheater.org, Babylon: Journeys of Refugees “looks at the relationship of refugees to their lost homelands, to their new homelands and languages, and to other migrants who are fleeing violence.
“Through conversation with resettled refugees, Sandglass Theater is creating a piece that helps audiences understand the plight of refugees and the challenges to resettlement. The piece also explores how all our lives are changed by this migration.”
Sandglass is working with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program in Burlington to understand the physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges that face the refugees. VRRP is one of 76 agencies of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Through VRRP, Sandglass interviewed nine “new Americans” (compiling 15 hours of recorded interviews) to gain firsthand insight into their plight, trauma, and the challenges of resettlement.
“One of our plans for Babylon is to tour the piece in places in the country where there have been issues around immigration,” Bass says. “We hope to work with local agencies of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants as well as progressive arts centers in these towns.”
Bass believes the NTP grant will give Sandglass time to organize such a tour, and the subsidy will make it more possible to bring Babylon to places the timely piece may not have been able to go without it.
“The generous grant from NTP helps make such a tour possible,” Bass adds. “Quite frankly, many of these arts organizations simply don’t have the funds to afford bringing this show. Don’t misunderstand me, Sandglass has very low rates for touring. But Babylon takes a large company to put on, and with travelling and lodging, things begin to add up.”
Local audiences will have a chance to see the latest version of the work when it is performed as part of Sandglass’s 10th International Puppets in the Green Mountains festival, during which Babylon will be performed on Sept. 20 and 21, at 8 p.m. each night, at the New England Youth Theatre at 100 Flat Street in Brattleboro.
This year’s Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival, titled “Opening the Doors,” which runs from Sept. 19 to 23, features companies from Wales, Taiwan, Canada, and around the U.S. It will build directly upon the themes introduced during the last festival in 2015, “Walking to the Borders,” which focused on issues of immigration and humanization.
With performances for all ages as well as shows specifically for adults, this year’s Puppets in the Green Mountains highlights stories of access and inclusion, from a stirring performance by a mixed ability cast that takes a timely look at marginalization in today’s societies to Babylon and its dive into the complicated issues of the global refugee crisis.